UC Berkeley alumna completes year-long simulation of Mars mission

HI-Seas IV Chief Engineer Andrzej Stewart 2015/Courtesy

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UC Berkeley alumna Sheyna Gifford emerged from a year-long simulation of a Mars mission with a new perspective on humans’ relationships with the universe and with each other.

The mission, known as the NASA HI-SEAS IV space exploration analogue, required six scientists to spend a year in total isolation in a solar powered dome atop Mauna Loa in Hawaii in order to study team cohesion, according to the HI-SEAS website. The scientists first entered the dome Aug. 28, 2015 and exited exactly a year later, the longest simulation yet.

“Practicing for space is important because practicing for anything you want to get right is important,” Gifford said. “This is a year-long training so that we can get it right when it matters. We were basically learning how to train for when we actually go.”

Gifford studied cognitive science at UC Berkeley as an undergraduate from 1997 until 2003 and was a member of The Daily Californian staff. Since her graduation, she has also pursued several research projects related to astrophysics, neuroscience and psychology.

While at UC Berkeley, Gifford took a class co-sponsored by the campus and NASA called “Mars by 2012,” which she credits with sparking her desire to pursue space exploration.

A report on the class from the Lunar and Planetary Institute states that students studied habitat design, space suits, environmental control, countermeasures to a decrease in gravity and crew size for a Mars mission. Then, the students were invited to attend a NASA conference and present their ideas and methodologies.

“Nothing came of (the class), and we all went our separate ways, but … I kept trying to find a way to get to Mars and this was it. It took 18 years — half my life — but we designed it,” Gifford said. “The things we learned, the things we designed for this mission were half a lifetime in the making.”

SeYeonKim_Gifford-01During the HI-SEAS mission, Gifford served as the chief medical and safety officer and the crew journalist. According to Gifford, the crew’s preparation for the simulation included completing a National Outdoor Leadership School course together and learning how to operate the water, heating and power systems in the dome — then, they were left on their own.

Gifford’s preparation for the trip of a lifetime began with her class at UC Berkeley and ended when she stepped into the dome for the HI-SEAS mission. Though her years in research and graduate school made the mission a little easier, she said, nothing could have fully prepared her for the experience.

“Space is about humanity and being the best possible human you can be,” Gifford said. “What people have to do is become better people — become your most generous, patient, gracious self — to survive in space. You have to become a better human. Otherwise, you aren’t going to make it.”

Contact Harini Shyamsundar at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @hshyamsundar.